The MINI Cooper Electric beats the Tesla Model 3 on just one point — but it's a crucial one

  • A few years back, I tested a Tesla Model 3 and was blown away by the greatness of the car.
  • More recently, I reviewed a MINI Cooper SE Electric, a nifty EV from a carmaker know for delivering driving pleasure.
  • The Model 3 is a much better car than the MINI in almost every measure — but the MINI nips the Tesla when it comes to driving fun.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

In some ways, MINI was Tesla before Tesla: a cool, youthful car brand that sold itself by stressing how much fun its cars were. 

That was 20 years ago, however, and times have changed. Now MINI — even the revamped version of the marque that arrived in 2000 but that recalled the original of the 1960s — looks venerable. Tesla is 16 years old, but it comes off as the new-new thing.

It boils down to power. Specifically, powertrains: MINIs mostly run on gas, while Tesla is all-electric. But MINI is getting into the EV game. A few months back, I sampled the brand's MINI Cooper SE Electric, a 2021 model that was priced at $37,750.

That's about the same as the current Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus, at $37,990. Mind you, there's not a huge amount to compare, apples-to-apples: The Tesla has a range of 250 miles and is a four-door, while the MINI has a range of 110 miles and is a two-door.

But the MINI has one critical thing going for it. Read on to find out if it's enough to overcome the Model 3:

My 2020 MINI Cooper SE arrived in a "White Silver Metallic" paint job. Price? $37,780. But the base was $29,900, with a $7,000 "Iconic" trim package.

Read the review.

From a distance, you wouldn't know that this MINI Cooper had an electric motor and batteries under the hood.

It's an open question whether that matters. Some electrics advertise their electric-ness, but this car wants to look like a MINI and to capitalize on the design's considerable appeal.

For cargo capacity, you do have to drop the rear seats to have enough space for anything beyond low-key shopping trips.

When the rear seats are up, the cargo area is a mere 7.5 cubic feet.

There's a cheeky Union Jack motif in the tail lights, and the "E" callouts are fairly limited, although the electric MINI gets some neon-yellow trim to advertise its mission.

The drivetrain consists of a 33-kilowatt-hour, lithium-ion battery, paired with a 135-kWh motor that generates 181 horsepower with 207 pound-feet of torque.

Recharging is a simple process, but as with all EVs, it's more time-consuming than pulling into a gas station.

I used ChargePoint's network to recharge the MINI at Level 2. The vehicle also comes with an onboard rejuicer to change at either 120V or 240V home charging.

If the MINI is completely drained, the battery could come back to a full charge at Level 2 in about six hours, in my testing. I was looking at going from about 40% to 100% in four hours.

Inside, the MINI Electric combines premium materials with snazzy design. My tester's interior was "Chesterfield Satellite Gray" leather, with an anthracite headliner and some MINI-Electric-specific elements. The front seats on my tester were heated.

Overall, the MINI Electric's interior is among the most luxurious I've experienced in an electric car.

The rear seats are nice enough, but the legroom is quite modest.

A theme that's found most prominently on the infotainment display. The MINI system is undergirded by BMW's iDrive tech. Bluetooth pairing is easy, and there's USB device connectivity, along with GPS navigation.

The MINI Cooper SE Electric's biggest selling point is that it's absolutely thrilling to drive. I consistently caught myself rocketing above the legal speed limit. That's where the MINI Electric decisively overcomes its limitations. It's the MINI of EVs. and although you can't really take it on a road trip, you can chase thrills doing just about anything else.

On to the Model 3!

Read the review.

The Model 3 I tested was a $57,500 Model 3 Long Range in Premium trim, meaning it has a 75-kilowatt-hour battery pack and can travel 310 miles on a single charge. That configuration is now about $47,000.

But the current Standard Range Plus is about $38,000 and can travel 250 miles before needing a recharge.

The Model 3 is a sharp set of wheels, designed by Tesla's Franz von Holzhausen to embody forward-thinking without taking any wild and crazy chances.

The Model 3 has plenty of trunk space — and an offbeat hatch design to enable a continuous glass fastback roof. It handled grocery duty for a family of five without breaking a sweat.

Plus the Model 3 has a front trunk, or "frunk." The Tesla has about 15 cubic feet of cargo space in the trunk, and the frunk adds a few more cubes.

The logos are genuinely low-key on this car. You can barely make out the Tesla badge on this wee bit of chrome bling.

Charging for Teslas is a real joy, even though it takes some time. It helps that Tesla has built a nationwide network of fast-charging stations.

A Supercharger will recharge a Model 3 Long Range from zero to full in about an hour. Using 240-volt power will get the job done overnight, and a basic wall outlet will get you a mile an hour in an emergency.

A Tesla smartphone app enables owners to manage a wide range of vehicle functions — and serves as the Model 3's key! There's a back-up card, just in case.

You have to be a minimalist to love the Model 3's interior. The leatherette upholstery is animal-free, and the flash is … well, there isn't any.

Unlike nearly every other steering wheel on the planet, the Model 3's has almost no knobs or buttons.

The rear seats are a bench design, but also comfortable. The legroom is reasonable. I'm 5-foot-7, and I had no trouble stretching my legs. Taller passengers might struggle, but for a car this size, the legroom is decent.

The central touchscreen carries an immense amount of responsibility. It's divided into left and right areas, with important driving info on the left and infotainment on the right. Where the "P" is, for example, becomes a speedometer when the Model 3 is in motion.

You have the usual Bluetooth integration and USB connectivity, with a wide range of apps to choose from and views that can be tweaked. This is also where Tesla's semi-self-driving system, Autopilot, can be managed. The MINI had nothing to compare.

The Tesla Model 3 is a much, much better EV than the MINI Cooper SE Electric. And it is plenty of fun to drive. But it simply isn't quite AS MUCH fun to drive as the MINI. So while the MINI loses out on nearly every front, it wins in one all-important, brand-defining category.

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